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  • May 23, 2022

Childcare and inequality

How much time do parents of different socioeconomic status spend with their kids?


The care that children receive early in life has huge implications for their life in the long run

In a paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, authors Sarah Flood, Joel McMurry, Aaron Sojourner, and Matthew Wiswall examine inequality in the care experienced by American children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Disparities in both parental and nonparental care contribute to overall inequality and the authors document changes since the early 2000s. The findings counter mistaken assumptions that more educated parents spend more total time with their children.




Figure 1 from Flood et al. (2022)


Figure 1 shows the trend in how much time mothers of different educational levels spend caring for their children. The lines show the average weekly hours of caregiving by mothers without any college education (dark line with circles) and by mothers with at least a bachelor’s degree (light line with squares). 

The left panel shows trends in how many total hours per week mothers spent around their children. In the early 2000s, there wasn’t much difference in caregiving hours between mothers with and without a college degree, but that gap widened substantially in less than a decade. Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, mothers with a bachelor's degree averaged spending ten fewer hours per week with their children than mothers with no college degree. 

The right panel shows trends for more focused “direct” childcare activities, such as reading or playing. Here the patterns head in opposite directions. Although mothers with more formal education still spend three more hours a week in direct care time with their kids than do mothers with less formal education, this is down from the earlier, seven-hour gap.

The findings counter mistaken assumptions that more educated parents spend more time with their children. Still, when it comes to the quality of the overall care that kids receive—whether from their parents or others—children of lower socioeconomic status spend more time in less-enriching environments.

Inequality in Early Care Experienced by US Children appears in the Spring 2022 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.